Examining The Permutations For The Other Irish Provinces
0 wins from four for the Irish provinces in this weekend’s Heineken Cup tells its own story. The last time such a disaster occurred was six years ago in the 2006-07 season.
Connacht were the first to fall on Friday night after they went down 17-0 in torrential conditions in the south of France. Their victory over Biarritz last weekend was hailed as one of their finest moments in Europe but they were unable to match the result in what can only be described as a mud bath. Leinster’s defeat Sunday week against Clermont Auvergne left them knowing that they needed to come away from the Aviva with at least the four point win. But it wasn’t to be as the classy French outfit demolished the reigning champions in what was a very impressive display by Vern Cotter’s side. Ulster were the next Irish hope to be diminished after what was perhaps the biggest shock of the weekend. The final nail in the coffin would come on Sunday at Vicarage Road when Munster lost by six points to a Saracens side who they beat by the same margin last weekend. In what was yet another titanic battle between two of Europe’s heavyweights, the English side won thanks to the boot of Owen Farrell.
So where does this leave the Irish sides and their respective pools?
As expected, it looks like Munster’s disastrous loss in Paris against Racing Metro in the opening match day in Pool will come back to haunt them. On that particular wet day in the French capital, Munster’s performance was scrappy and uncharacteristically mistake-laden. With Munster having been handed their second defeat of the tournament they lie precariously in third position on 11 points.
If Leinster are in danger on 10 points, then Munster are not in much better shape themselves. Their final two pool games are away to Edinburgh and a home clash with Racing. Munster will take comfort from the fact that they play Racing in Round 6, which by then the French side could potentially be out of the competition, should Saracens beat them. But as Munster found to their cost, travelling to take on Racing in front of a Parisian crowd is by no means an easy task. Should Munster collect maximum points from their remaining two fixtures, they will be on 21 points which may still not be enough.
The problem for both Leinster and Munster is that both Pool 2 and Pool 6 are also highly competitive, the difference being, that each team currently lying in second spot have a superior points total. In Pool 2 Toulouse are currently in second place with 13 points and just one behind Leicester. You would fully expect both of these powerhouses to emerge from here, one as winners and the other as a best runner up. Pool 6 is all about French dominance. Toulon who are still unbeaten in this years competition sit top while Montpellier who have surprised a few in this season’s competition have 13 points in second. Both teams till have to play each other again in a game which will decide top spot. With both Sale and Cardiff’s interest gone from the competition, you wouldn’t be surprised to see both French sides emerge from Pool 6.
Munster do have a better chance of advancing than Leinster even though they will be heavily reliant on other results going their way. Not only do they have a point extra than Leinster but as there are still three teams vying to get out of Pool 1, Munster still have the slightest hope of topping the group. Best possible scenario for Munster would be; If Racing beat Saracens at home next month and deny their opponents a losing bonus point and Munster collect the maximum five on offer against Edinburgh – both Racing and Munster would sit on 16 points going into the final game. Munster would go into round 6 knowing that their destiny is in their own hands and at Thomond Park, few would back against them in advancing in the most unlikeliest of fashion.
Sadly for Connacht their time in the competition is up. With just 8 points after 4 games played, they lie in third spot behind both Harlequins and Biarritz. ‘Quins have the highest points return in the entire competition at this stage and will undoubtedly have a home quarter final.
The northern province are still in pole position in Pool 4 having only suffered the one setback thus far. Their remaining two games come against bottom side Glasgow who in truth are one of the weakest sides in this years competition. Ulster will be confident of collecting 5 points in that clash at Ravenhill in January but it is the trip to Castres in round 6 that will be the crucial fixture. The French side currently lie in second spot, just 3 points behind the Irish side. Pool 4 is no by means done and dusted with Northampton also harbouring their own hopes of qualifying as one of the best runners up.
In seasons gone by in the Heineken Cup we have seen French side’s interest curtailed as they choose to concentrate on the Top 14. Castres have long been one of these sides but this year, they have serious ambitions of reaching the quarter finals of Europe’s elite competition. Clermont coach Vern Cotter’s brilliant analogy of the difficulties in which French sides have in achieving the right balance in competing in the Heineken Cup and the Top 14 was summed up in the peculiar phrase, “You lose feathers in this competition”. As a confused press room pondered just what exactly the South African meant, he explained; “It’s quite a funny French expression. I think quite often at the end of the season it’s hard to go from one to the other because you’ve lost too many feather along the way and can’t fly.” Castres’ Heineken Cup feathers are still firmly attached to the Heineken Cup and they could well be one of the sides that pick up one of the best runners up spots.
A downhearted Joe Schmidt perfectly summed up Leinster’s future in this years competition in the post match press conference: “Miracles happen in sport I guess. But your mathematical long shots very seldom come to being.” Having suffered back to back defeats at the hands of their old foes Clermont, Leinster now face an uphill battle if they are to reach the knockout stages. There is no question that they need maximum 10 points from their final two pool games against Exeter and Scarlets but that in itself is no easy feat nor would it guarantee their passage as one of the best runners up. Their 10 point return from 4 games is in fact the second lowest of the second placed teams with only Biarritz having collect fewer (9) points.
Clermont coach, Vern Cotter was quick to reiterate that Leinster were by no means out of the competition; “They’re a class side and they’re not out of the competition just yet. It’s not a finished affair. We’re aware that we could come across them again later on if they qualify.” You got the feeling that Cotter’s positive attitude was more out of respect than anything else. Leinster are more than capable of picking up winning bonus points at home to Scarlets and away to Exeter. The problem will still remain that a 20 point total looks highly unlikely to merit one of the best runners up spots.